Ignited by singer-songwriter Jim James’s high-pitched howl, My Morning Jacket’s fourth release “Z” feels like a geyser of energy rising from deep within a dream. And what a strange, captivating dream it is. Never flagging in musical intensity or in sheer creativity, the album builds its own fantastical universe and pulls its audience swiftly beneath the surface.
For a band whose first three albums leaned much more obviously toward its country and rock ‘n roll roots, My Morning Jacket’s newest effort veers into a more labyrinthine, surreal territory. This time around, My Morning Jacket features keyboardist Bo Koster and guitarist Carl Broemel, both of whom replaced departing members of the band in 2004. But far from reeling with confusion, the Louisville, Kentucky quintet wastes no time slipping right into a groove.
“Z” furnishes a procession of sounds and images that are at times majestic, at times whimsical, but always sumptuous and alluring. In the opener, “Wordless Chorus,” My Morning Jacket offers a taste of what is to come. While bass and organ create an insistent, staccato rhythm chugging through a misty atmosphere, James intones his lyrics in a soft falsetto that somehow seems liable to explode at any moment: “Tell me, spirit, what has not been done?/ I’ll rush out and do it/ Or are we doing it now?” The line is an appeal to the Muse and a plea for originality — something “Z” is certainly not lacking. “We are the innovators,” James says later in the song, and he’s got the entire album to back it up.
Most of the songs on “Z” unfold in a cloud of reverb so pervasive that the album seems to spring from a distant echo chamber. “Wordless Chorus” features a chorus that is indeed wordless: just James singing a melody at the top of his lungs while guitars jig and dance in the stratosphere. The effect might be described as psychedelic, but in truth the album is pulled off with too much calculation and precision to be tossed in that category.
Following “Wordless Chorus” with greater tempo and verve, “It Beats 4 U” showcases guitars that are clear and sparse above the machine-gun din of snare drums. Building layer upon layer of sound, the song plunges deeper into a reverie the album has already begun.
That reverie receives a good shock with the fourth track and watershed, “What a Wonderful Man.” Compared with the detailed, intricate arrangements of the preceding songs, “What a Wonderful Man” is a whirlwind of animalistic fervor endowed with the swagger of old-time rock. Guitars buzz savagely with distortion, cymbals crash endlessly, and the piano rollicks along. James hurtles through the lyrics, sounding as if he’s just woken up from a prolonged slumber.
“What a Wonderful Man” lacks the soothing character of the first few numbers, and it suddenly seems like My Morning Jacket is straining to sound raucous and unfinished. Yet “Z” is an album that manages to find organic beauty in its incongruity. Indeed, like a dream punctuated by screams of raw emotion, the music can be both hypnotically pleasant and hauntingly vivid. On “Into the Woods,” James sings of such horrifying images as “a kitten on fire” and “a baby in a blender,” while a saccharine waltz beats in the background.
James’s lyrics are neither coherent enough to express complete thoughts nor haphazard enough to be completely meaningless — in short, they are fascinating. James strives to express an artistic truth that must be articulated through music and not words alone. On “Anytime,” he sings, “All that I wanted to say — words got in the way.”
Still, “Z” contains lyrical ruminations that wrestle with love, soul and God, and ever-so-slightly unravel one man’s private conscience strand by strand. Although the album is the collective work of five men, its content is such an undiluted, radioactive substance that it bears the unmistakable imprint of a single artist. James’ creative fire is everywhere in the music, and it shifts and blazes to produce a CD that is completely and unabashedly original. Amid ringing guitars early on in the album, James calls out: “What does this remind you of?” The answer: nothing anyone has heard in a very long time.